After a rash idea to circumnavigate the whole of Britain in a 27ft Rhea 850, Phil and Nigel find themselves plugging up the windswept East Coast...
This is part two of Phillip Davies and Nigel Boutwood’s round Britain adventure. You can read part one here.
Our strategy for circumnavigating Britain was arrived at over numerous conversations before embarking. Nigel would plot the agreed passage plan on the Imray paper charts with courses to steer from waypoint to waypoint, marking our position on the chart as we went at least once every hour.
We would rely on the Garmin plotter, with its electronic chart, for the detail in conjunction with the Reeds Almanac and visitmyharbour.co.uk for local pilotage notes. Weather and sea forecasts would be a composite of the BBC’s Coastal, Inshore Waters and Shipping, plus myweather2.com and windfinder.com
Tide times would always be taken as at Dover for passage planning purposes. This would keep things simple, as all of the tidal flow charts in The Reeds Almanac and marked on the Imray charts are as per Dover and the local standard port. However, as we would rarely be in the local standard port this would remove the need for another calculation.
Lastly, our intention was to cruise only in fair weather – nothing above a Force 4 and preferably with neap tides and a gentle following sea. So much for good intentions!
Ramsgate to Lowestoft
Although we have made it from Gosport to Ramsgate safely enough, thus far we have always been in sight of land. Our first proper offshore passage now awaits us across the navigationally tricky outer Thames estuary to Lowestoft, the most easterly point on the British mainland. We’ll be going past a number of wind farms and some significant sandbanks.
The wind is predicted to be Force 3 gusting 4, rising to Force 5 later, but if all goes to plan we should arrive in Lowestoft before the 5 kicks in. The only fly in the ointment will be having to endure a stretch of wind against tide in the first hour or so. That will probably be the ‘moderate’ bit of the predicted ‘slight to moderate’.
We need to refuel and while treading water awaiting our turn on the fuel barge, it’s very noticeable that the wind, even in the harbour, is a bit stronger than the predicted Force 3-4. Too late for second thoughts now, so we fuel up and ask permission to leave the harbour.
Motoring through the outer harbour we can already feel an underlying swell rolling in and beyond the protective walls we can see significant white horses riding the waves, well beyond what one would expect from a Force 3-4, even against the tide.
We discuss the possibility of it smoothing down out to sea and decide to carry on up the track (our faulty plotter screen still displaying everything at 90° out). However, I keep the helm on manual to try and dodge the bigger waves.
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We plug on, by now at displacement speed, beyond the famous North Foreland Lighthouse, but it’s obvious that we are not up for spending seven hours battling this sort of sea state. We think it’s a straightforward Force 5 gusting 6 with steep short waves, like a Solent chop on steroids. All I have to do is turn around and go back to Ramsgate – easy enough to say but not to execute.
Nigel, a life-long rag and stick merchant, thinks we should slow right down to 5 knots or less from our current 10 knot maximum displacement speed before making the turn, as that’s what he’d do in a sailing boat.
We have our first ‘discussion’ about the different size of rudders fitted to motor and sail boats and the necessity for power and speed to give good steerage on a motor boat (fitted with small rudders) compared to a sailing boat (longer, larger rudders for good manoeuvrability at slow speeds).
I’ve only had this boat a year but with 30 years of motorboating experience in all sizes of boats, I felt I had the upper edge in this matter. And while the Rhea 850 has legendary seakeeping capabilities we still have to execute a 180° turn without broaching.
Eventually, I pick my moment and spin the wheel hard over. Heart in mouth, Start Me Up powers through the turn until we’re facing back in the direction we came from. A very uncomfortable following sea accompanies us all the way back to Ramsgate until we arrive, gratefully, on the very same berth we left a couple of hours earlier.
On the plus side it’s fun to have an unplanned day in Ramsgate. It’s a very attractive harbour and we get the sense that the place is on the up. We decide to take advantage of the time to try and get somebody to assist with the plotter/autopilot problem but there is nobody free to help us.
Then I remember that when I had my first boat, a Princess 45 in 1989, we put our free-standing 12-volt television on the bed in the guest cabin in expectation of bumpy weather. As I engaged the autopilot the boat immediately veered off course towards the beach.
It transpired that we had plonked the TV directly above the autopilot compass, fixed under the guest bed, playing havoc with its sensitive magnetic readings. Could this be our problem? We search unsuccessfully for the autopilot’s electronic compass. I phone the people who sold me the boat to see if they can help. They promise to get back to me.
The following day the forecast looks considerably better and from the tall inner harbour wall we can see a completely different smooth-to-slight sea state. We leave our berth immediately.
Outside the harbour, I advance the revs to 3,500rpm and we cruise very comfortably at 20 knots heading north on our planned 72 nm passage to Lowestoft. We eventually lose sight of land and become irritated by the plotter showing the boat going sideways across the screen where it thinks north is. Even though the autopilot holds the course, the plotter decides to create a destination ‘mark’ and the ‘stop panning’ button appears.
I learn subsequently that this is called ‘ghost panning’ and is probably a result of the operating software needing updating to facilitate the huge number of new chart files and operational capabilities.
We do at least have accurate GPS latitude/longitude and are able to note our position on the paper charts, thus maintaining a safe compass course to steer and avoiding the numerous shallow waters and wind farms prevalent in the Outer Thames Estuary.
After three hours or so, with about another hour to run to Lowestoft, the weather suddenly starts to pick up, then picks up a bit more, and then a bit more again. The resultant Force 5 gusting 6 creates an uncomfortable head sea, sending plumes of spray hurtling over the wheelhouse. In these conditions the boat feels very small indeed.
We reduce to displacement speed for the final 10 miles. It’s a very long hour so when at last we reach Lowestoft it’s with some relief that we call Channel 14 for permission to enter (granted) and Channel 80 for a berth at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club. The manager is there to greet us and we are very glad to have arrived. We hose down the boat and break out the beers.
I phone the boat dealer again as I am now thoroughly fed up with our plotter/ autopilot problem. He tells me that the electronics guy, who does his work, will phone me and talk me through the autopilot setup. He doesn’t call but does text me the number of support staff at Garmin, who can help.
I phone them and they are helpful in so far as they confirm that the software needs updating but it’s not a DIY fix. They have two dealers in Lowestoft who can help but both are now closed. I’ll ring them first thing.
One of the two contact numbers also features in the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club welcome leaflet, KM Electronics Ltd. I ring them at 8.30am the next day and am pleasantly surprised my call is answered by a Kevin Smith rather than an out of hours answerphone.
Lowestoft to Grimsby
I tell him my problem and he says he will download the software then come to the marina to install it. Sure enough he shows up at 9.30am clutching the all-important USB stick and we wait for the new Garmin software to upload (30 minutes).
Once installed we head out of the harbour to do the other routines needed for the (still hidden) electronic compass to find north, which it does. We head back to the visitor’s berth, intensely grateful for Kevin’s help. How much? £48 inc VAT. I want to kiss him – fantastic service and amazing value for money.
The forecast is fair, so we fill up the tanks and ask the harbour authority for permission to leave. We make our way around the Norfolk coast, across the Outer Wash until Spurn Head comes into view and we pick up a target buoy to head up into the Humber Estuary.
The Humber Cruising Association Marina is south-west of the fish dock through a very old lock that opens three hours either side of high water and has a free flow two hours either side. We are three hours before and are told that we are on a list for entry but commercial traffic has priority.
We can only see one fishing boat so we follow it up to the lock to see if they will let us in any way. They don’t so we tread water until 10 minutes or so later the lock manager invites us into the lock. She explains that it’s strictly one boat at a time and no need to tie up as there isn’t going to be a big surge of water so we should be able to control the boat (eek!)
We make our way in and I am instructed to move forward a bit so the back gates can be shut (maximum boat length, including bathing platform, is nine meters). I shuffle Start Me Up into position and then almost immediately the lock gates ahead of us open into the fish dock. We find ourselves an appropriate berth on the visitor’s pontoon.
We hose the boat down and look for somebody. We find a couple who tell us that the staff have all gone home but the club is open so Nigel is able to play the club’s piano without annoying anybody! The same lovely couple open the bar, get us a drink and give us a gate card for a £10 deposit but are unable to recommend any restaurants in Grimsby and advise getting a taxi to Cleethorpes instead. Cleethorpes and Grimsby are one town, like Brighton and Hove, you really can’t see the join.
Cleethorpes has a lovely seafront and we manage to find a Thai restaurant and enjoy a delicious curry. We return to the boat sated and satisfied at our progress but we both know the real challenges still lie ahead as we make our way
north and ever closer to the perils of Scotland’s fearsome North Coast.
Philip paid for the entire adventure out of his own pocket but hopes it will raise awareness and funds for two charities, Brain Tumour Research and Prostate Cancer UK. To read more about their adventure and donate to either cause visit: boataroundbritain.co.uk
First published in the January 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.